THE POWER OF SOUR

I can hear you grumbling after my last post. “OK, Brother Barley…you pompous ass. You just casually dismissed all summer seasonal beers and didn’t offer any alternatives for thirst-quenching brews. Well, it’s starting to get warm outside and I need something other than a Russian Imperial Stout or Belgian Dubbel when I’m on my porch grillin’ burgers and sweating my balls (or ovaries) off. So how about you stop trashing an entire segment of the beer population and start offering some actual useful advice? Sincerely Yours, Hollis Green.”

Well, Hollis. First of all, I’m sorry about your arm. Second of all, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t offer any refreshing alternatives to summer beers and for that I apologize. Allow me to remedy that with a story.

A few years back, Wifey McHops and I traveled to one of our favorite ports of call, San Francisco. We ate pastries at Tartine, basil rolls at the Slanted Door, and chocolate at Ghirardelli. All fine establishment with wonderful food. But our most memorable gustatory experience on that visit wasn’t food at all…it was a brew. On a suggestion from Wifey McHops’s magnanimous sister, we ventured up to the Monk’s Kettle…an excellent little beer bar in the Mission with a wonderful draft list. We sampled a number of brews including a slate of Russian River offerings and a phenomenal Gruit. But the beer we kept coming back to was a simple, Flemish Sour called Monk’s Cafe. All of our Philly-dwelling readers are laughing or nodding their heads right now, but you have to understand that I had never BEEN to the legendary alehouse in the City of Brotherly Love at that point in my life. It would be another year before I would trek up to Philly and visit one of my favorite bars in the U.S.

Monk’s Cafe is a stalwart of the Philly beer scene. The Belgian beer bar on 16th and Spruce serves up good grub and excellent brews. It’s one of the few places outside of Northern California that you can get Russian River offerings on tap and it even has its own, private-label beer brewed by the Van Steenberge outfit in Belgium. That beer? The aforementioned Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale.

In my post about Bell’s Oberon, I made it clear that I was biased against summer seasonals and thus had trouble rating them properly. The exact opposite is true for the Monk’s Cafe. In truth, it’s probably not a great beer. It’s somewhat one-note. It’s got a funky, sour flavor that many Aleheads would probably prefer to avoid. And it’s designed more as a refreshing palate-cleanser than as a real prestige beer. But I love it. I could drink a thousand of them. It’s light-bodied, I never get tired of the flavor, and at 5.5% ABV, it’s strong enough to get the job done, but not so strong that I’m on the floor after a half-dozen. So…as I said during my Oberon post…take my review with a grain of salt. If my objectivity is questionable when I DON’T like a beer style…it’s even worse when I DO (see my Brother Thelonius review for a prime example).

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The Monk’s Cafe pours like translucent cherry-wood with dark mahogany around the edges of my tulip glass. The head is off-white, fairly full, and lasts a respectable amount of time. The lacing is fine and clings high on the glass before slipping back into the luxuriant, red body.

The nose gives away the entire beer…you’ll either love it or hate it after one whiff. It’s strongly sour, tart and vinous…like over-ripe cherries. Wifey claims that “it smells like something that turned bad…but in a good way!” I should point out that this is Wifey’s all-time favorite brew and she’s even more biased than I am. The longer you smell the beer, the more that sour aroma fades and leaves a very pleasant, sweet, sugar/cinnamon blend. That sour to sweet transition is even more pronounced in the taste. Upon first sip, the sour-tart flavor hits you full-bore. There’s no bitterness…no alcohol burn…no hops. Just that tart, refreshing, mouth-puckering flavor. It hits a crescendo in the middle of the sip and then quickly fades to a sweet, dark brown sugar flavor. The finish is phenomenal…it tastes like the shell of a candy apple…smooth, sweet, and addictive.

The mouthfeel is light and very well-carbonated, but it has what Wifey calls “good, cheek-coating mouthlegs”. In other words, it’s not one of those light-bodied brews that disappears from your palate so quickly that you forgot you just took a sip. It’s substantial, but there’s nothing “heavy” about the Monk’s. Drinkability, as I noted earlier, is shockingly high. It’s a true session brew…one I would continue drinking until I either passed out on the floor, got in a fight, or ran out of money (or all three). Thankfully for everyone, I don’t live anywhere near Monk’s Cafe so I can’t test my “I could drink a thousand of these beers!” theory. Although, the Aleheads are journeying to Philly soon for a beer-fueled weekend, so we’ll see…

3.5 Hops from Brother Barley. Tough call on the overall rating. In terms of MY enjoyment of the beer…it’s a 4. But I recognize its faults and in reality it’s probably closer to a 3. I’ll split the difference.

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6 comments

  1. Sweeney · · Reply

    I’m finally starting to come around on sours. I had an Elysian/Fat Tire Collaborative Trip III Sour brown ale a few weeks ago and I actually really enjoyed it. I’ve had a number of Belgian sours in the past but never really liked them all that much. Perhaps, the super IPAs are starting the dull my pallet so I can enjoy such things. Cheers!

  2. Sweeney, since you are lucky enough to get New Belgium brews out your way make sure you check out the La Folie. It’s tart to say the least, but if you’re coming around on sours I think you’ll love it. The more obvious choices for anyone that enjoys a good sour are Rodenbach and Duchesse de Bourgogne. I can’t wait to try the Monk’s brew when we’re in Philly in a couple of weeks.

  3. […] in the city. Russian River, Le Rulles, Lost Abbey…plus their proprietary beer, the eponymous Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour. Their bottle menu is absolutely amazing…brews that I’ve never seen in a bar before. […]

  4. […] Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour […]

  5. […] certainly appreciate the positive virtues a hint of wine can bestow on a brew. The irony is that I LOVE sour beers. Beers that mimic wines are amongst my favorite brews on Earth…but for some reason I […]

  6. […] Two of my all-time favorite establishments in the US are Monk’s CafĂ© in Philly and the Monk’s Kettle in San Fran. So, bucking all expectations, I walked across the street to the Thirsty Monk…I […]

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